R.A.P. Interview: Christopher O'Brien

Christopher O'Brien, Production Director, 94WYSP, Philadelphia, PA

by Jerry Vigil 

Christopher O’Brien is the Production Director at top-rated WYSP in Philadelphia, cranking out imaging as hot as anything we’ve featured on The Cassette, and he’s only twenty years old. His rapid rise to the majors is a result of his passion for what he does, his determination, and the skills that are obvious on his demo on this month's RAP Cassette. If you’ve heard people say, “Radio isn’t growing anymore great talents,” look again. One of tomorrow’s mentors is keeping radio alive at WYSP.

JV: Tell us about your background in radio and how you managed to land a top gig in Philadelphia at such a young age.
Christopher: It all started in the spring of 1990. I was twelve years old at the time, and I hated radio. One night I stumbled upon a talk station here in Philadelphia, WCAU-AM, and there was some drunk (caller) on the air. This guy was just rambling on and I thought, “Hey, I can do that.” So I called up, and soon I was calling every show on the station. Eventually they decided they’d give this kid a title, so they called me the WCAU-AM Youth Adviser. I basically called in and did a report once a week, and that was my first bit of radio. Then the format changed to Oldies, and I really didn’t know what I was going to do. So I started doing talk shows at my house with a tape deck and a couple of friends. I sent tapes to all these little radio stations in the South Jersey market, which was the smallest market. Finally, one of the stations said, “Yeah, we’ll hire you, and we’ll pay you in trade” because I was too young to get paid in cash. I was fourteen by this time. So I went down there, and the day before I was supposed to start, the entire staff left the radio station, even the secretaries. I was there when the owner of the station flew in, and I started out doing a bit of everything. It was kind of weird.

They hired three or four more people, and I brought the demo tape of my talk show down. He didn’t like it at all. He said it was awful. So I ended up doing production. Originally, I thought I would hate it. Then I did a commercial and said to myself, “My God, this was why I was put on earth!” So for two consecutive summers, I did production at these radio stations down the shore, WFNN FUN 98.7 and WJNN Jersey News Now.

It was a really fun experience. I got to meet a lot of people, including a man by the name of Howard Parker who is now the voice of WYSP. We started doing creative down there together, and it was a really cool experience because he was just starting out in the business, too. I believe he was twenty-seven at the time. We were just learning, and we both had the same mentor, I guess you could say. By this point, I had met David Jay from Q102 in Philly, and Howard had worked under David for about six or seven months. I started contacting David Jay, and eventually I became his production assistant at Q102. At Q102 I did a lot of imaging for the station. I got to do show opens and everything from dubbing spots to producing sweepers. At this point, in the summer of 1996, I had just graduated from high school.

Then I was lucky enough to get a full scholarship at the Art Institute of Philadelphia for audio and video production. I had produced this big tape to get the scholarship. I went there for about seven or eight months, but I was really unhappy. They were teaching me how to splice tape when I already knew how to do digital editing.

Then my career started to really pick up. I was still helping out at Q102, and I was working part-time at a production company here in Philadelphia called SoundByte. It was interesting at first because they were a brand new company, and they had just moved into this building in Center City. They were testing the waters and so was I. I got to do everything there from nightclub commercials, to imaging that I was doing for stations and friends of mine on the side, to movie sound designing, which was really cool. That opened up a lot of roads, and at one point I thought I was going to end up being a sound designer for movies. But I did some talking and found out that there was more stability—and most people laugh at this—in radio than there was in the movies. The movie companies were laying off left and right. The production company wasn’t for me in the sense that I wasn’t really able to do what I wanted to do, which was radio imaging. My boss was Frank Cerami, and he had worked part-time at Q102 while he was learning the business, and still does. He gave me encouragement along the way to pursue what I wanted to do. So I started sending demo tapes out. I got probably thirty-seven rejections, but I never gave up because I knew that one day someone would be crazy enough to hire me.

Then a position at WYSP opened up. I sent a demo tape, and they wanted to talk to me. It took maybe two and a half months of talking back and forth, and finally they decided to give me the job. I’ve been here since September 1st of 1998.

JV: You mentioned David Jay. What did you learn from him, and who else influenced you in the beginning?
Christopher: I couldn’t have gotten anywhere without the people who really helped me out and gave me advice, who told me to get rid of my ego and all that stuff. David Jay was the first person. When I got to Q102, David basically told me that he would give me the opportunity to do the production but not to expect him to hold my hand in there. I was so nervous. No one approved my sweepers or anything. He’d say, “Just put it on the air. If they don’t like them, they’ll pull them out.” David has been probably one of the biggest influences. His work with Mark Driscoll really touched and inspired me. I listened to his stuff and said, “I want to be him.” He’s a genius. You know, a lot of people can’t understand when they listen to his work now. There are lots of classical music pieces and stuff like that in it. But it evokes passion and emotion where sometimes alternative production and the hip production of today lack that. They can make you go wow, but they can’t make you cry. That’s what I always strive to do. I always ask, “How can I touch the audience like they’re not going to get touched anywhere else?”

Another one of my huge mentors was the Production Director of B101, Tom Richards. I met him at a local advertising convention, and we just started talking. At first, he thought I was just full of crap. Then he heard a demo tape I had done for a station and said, “You know, I want to help you.” He’s been one of my biggest supporters. He totally digs what I do, and he’ll tell me if I suck. I trust his opinion. I think he has become a really good production guy. He would never admit that, but I think he really takes the AC part of B101 to the next level. He’s taught me a lot about how to have self control on production, how not to sit there and make Citizen Kane every time.

JV: What are your responsibilities at the station?
Christopher: My responsibilities are to do all the station’s imaging—everything from sweepers to promos and jock features. I don’t touch commercials at all, and some people go, “Wow, you’re lucky.” But trust me, imaging is a full-time job here. We’re doing all kinds of production, and it’s a challenge sometimes to stay fresh and not do exactly what the other stations are doing. I don’t want to just put static and noises into stuff. In my opinion, anyone can do that. The trick is to put them in harmony with each other and make them sound like a piece of art rather than just a bunch of noises thrown together.

JV: Is WYSP the only station you’re dealing with right now?
Christopher: As of right now, yes.

JV: Are there other stations in the building with WYSP?
Christopher: Yes. We have KYW-TV and KYW News Radio. But my only responsibility right now is WYSP’s imaging, and I can’t see it changing any time in the near future.

JV: Who’s doing the commercials?
Christopher: Rich DeSisto. He’s full-time and does the majority of the commercial production here with some help from the jocks.

JV: Does the Howard Stern Show keep you busy?
Christopher: Actually, most of Howard Stern’s stuff is covered by Howard’s guys. But I do the ins and outs—”You’re listening to the Howard Stern Show on the rock station”—and that kind of thing, and that keeps me busy. We have to keep those fresh, and they have to really rock because Howard’s show is a time to really show what we do.

JV: What production libraries are you using for imaging the station?
Christopher: That’s a weird part about me, I guess you could say. I don’t use any imaging libraries. I make my own. I have about six different short-wave radios at home, and at night I record all kinds of weird sounds and music off of them. I have about three different keyboards here at the station, and I load those radio sounds on there and play with them and make up my own sounds. I also use a lot of movie soundtracks and a lot of different music CDs we get in—like five seconds worth and then change it.

My position on production libraries is that everybody has the same libraries, and if you really want to be original, you have to come up with original stuff. I mean, when they’re doing a movie and they need a doorknob sound, they record doorknob sounds for each scene individually. People would think a doorknob sound is a doorknob sound, but in a movie, it makes a difference, just like you can tell the difference between Titanic and a B movie. That’s a big part of my philosophy on production. It shouldn’t sound like a B movie; it should sound like Titanic. I make maybe forty-five new sounds every day. It’s a lot of fun and I’ll probably make my own library and market it someday when I have the time to do that.

JV: What workstation are you creating these sounds on?
Christopher: ProTools. I love it. It’s the 4.0 16-bit version. A lot of my production friends out there either love ProTools or they hate it. When I first saw ProTools, I almost wanted to give up. I figured there was no way I could learn all those functions. But I sat there and was persistent with it. There’s a reason why Skywalker Sound in LA uses it. It’s amazing, and it’s very flexible. There’s like sixteen ways to press stop, and that’s what I love about it. It’s very versatile.

JV: What other tools are you using?
Christopher: I do a lot of pitch shifting, and I have an Otari 2-track that I use to do a lot of manual pitch shifting with. I also have a Sony MiniDisc recorder, and if you hear any kind of ambiance from outside on my demo, it literally is from outside. I just did a promo here featuring two guys on a bus, and the sound effects really came from a local transit bus here in Philadelphia. I took the mic and went outside and recorded it for five minutes, brought it back in and loaded it into ProTools. The realism really comes through. Some guys sit there for hours trying to layer in all the sound effects correctly. To me, it just seems quicker to get a really good recording from outside, and then it’s a perfect soundtrack. The only thing you have to be careful about, of course, is that you get it from the right perspective of where the listener should be in that bus.

I haven’t heard of too many people doing it, and I’m sure there are people who do, but I put a lot of sound designing into my production. I have my own sound effects library, basically Foley stuff I’ve recorded over the years, like footsteps and such. If I go down the shore on the beach, I’m recording waves and things. To be a good production guy, in my mind, you really need to live it, to eat, sleep and breathe it, to wake up in the middle of the night and go, “Hey, I hear a goofy sound outside; let me go record it.” And it pays off because you hear your work on the air, and it sounds different from what other people do.

I think right now a lot of production you hear is similar. It’s that alternative sound that came out in 1992, and they haven’t gone away from it. It used to be just on alternative rock stations. Now you’re hearing that sound even getting on some Hot AC stations. Every now and then, you’ll hear a static in my production, but I guess you could say my production is more of a mix of all different styles. I love Brian Kelsey’s work in New York at K-Rock, and I admire the way in which he’s so off the wall. You never know what you’re going to hear. That’s what I like. That’s how I think a well-produced radio station should sound, and that’s what I aspire to do here. I try, but I still have a lot to learn. I’m working every day, and I learn something every day. You have to learn something every day. Otherwise, what’s the point?

JV: What do you do to stimulate the creative juices?
Christopher: Well, I take the train into town every day, and I can usually write six or seven promos in my head from different conversations I hear. I get copy points then come up with a wacky creative idea for them. I might be watching TV and hear a joke and go wow, wouldn’t that be funny in a promo! I also learned how to do that when I was at SoundByte doing nightclub commercials. How do you sell a nightclub using the same records that have been playing for over a year? How do you make it cool to go to that nightclub? We would make really wacky and creative commercials. We might take a free drink night and almost make a cartoon out of the spot. We’d make it so unbelievable that it’s funny. I believe the listener wants to be humored.

One of my most valued listeners to my production is my fiancé. I’ve watched her change the station, even when my production is on. I aspire to not have her change the station. And I talk to everybody. Some of my greatest ideas come from interns because they’re so fresh in the business. They are so into it that they have ideas that have been simmering in their heads since they wanted to get into radio. And if you just give them the respect to listen to them and talk to them, it ends up coming back to you tenfold because your ideas are sometimes quadrupled. You may have an idea and they may say, “Hey, it would be funny if you did this.” Some of my best promos have been on the advice of interns and other people here at the station and people outside. I’m constantly asking people, “What did you think of that promo? What could I have done better?” I get good opinions, but you have to talk to a lot of people and get the majority opinion because if you talk to one person who says they love the promo and then just stop there, you wouldn’t talk to the six other people who didn’t like it. So, I’m always getting feedback. And, of course, you can never please everybody, but you can get it closer to what it should be.

JV: You mentioned having three keyboards in the studio. Are you a musician?
Christopher: I couldn’t play music to save my life. However, when I was doing nightclub commercials, I learned how to do beat matching, nightclub rhythms, and stuff like that. I’ll create my own rock beds by taking little distortion sounds and putting them in there as sixteenth or thirty-second beats, just creating weird soundscapes. But as far as being musical, I believe I can tell if it’s off key, but that’s about it.

JV: Our Q it Up question for this month is about microphones. What mics do you like to use for recording voice tracks in the studio, and what do you like to use out there in the field when you’re collecting ambiances?
Christopher: Right now I’m using an AKG C414. The station is set up to use just these microphones. But my hand-picked favorite in a perfect world would be the Neumann U87. As far as recording outside, I use the stereo microphone that comes with the Sony MiniDisc recorder, and I put foam over it so that it blocks the air from hitting it.

JV: What kind of processing do you use on voice tracks?
Christopher: As I mentioned earlier, we use a voice guy, Howard Parker, from Syracuse, New York. When I get tracks from him, I don’t have him process his voice, and I rarely process anything here. My claim to fame is that there’s no processing on my work at all. It’s all in the clear.

JV: No EQ? No compression?
Christopher: Sometimes I EQ just a little, like for that filter sound. The only time I use compression is if I’m trying to mimic a TV or what something would sound like on the radio, like if I’m doing a promo where you hear a radio. That’s one thing I learned from David Jay. I used to use a lot of compression. If I could have used a hundred thousand to one compression, I would have. I used to say, “But it doesn’t sound big unless you use compression.” Well, David said that was crap. He told me to go to the movies and watch this movie and listen to the soundtrack. I forget what movie it was. I went, and when I came back I said, “See, they must have used so much compression to make it sound so big.” And he said, “They don’t use any compression, and it sounded bigger than any radio thing, didn’t it?” And I’m like “Yeah.” And he goes, “If Star Wars didn’t use processing and it sounded great, then your production can sound great. You just have to learn how to mix.” So when I put something on the air, people say, “Wow, it’s so clean,” but that’s because I really don’t use any processing.

JV: What advice would you give to interns at radio stations that want to get into production?
Christopher: When I was sixteen, I ordered my first copy of Radio and Production. I used to listen to all those RAP Cassettes and say, “Man, I’ll never be able to do this.” But, if you want to get into production, and there are a lot of people now who want to get into production, don’t give up. Just do what you think is best. Don’t listen to people who say you can’t do that or that there are people better than you, because as long as you keep working, working, working for the main goal, you will get what you want. And that’s something I’ve always believed in. I remember as a little kid, I wanted to be an architect. Then I wanted to be a helicopter pilot. Then I wanted to fly blimps. Then all of a sudden radio hit me, and I said, “This is what I want to do.” I’ve been concentrating on radio since I was nine years old. People say, “Oh, you’re so young at it,” but in reality, I’ve kind of been in radio for ten years because I’ve been eating, sleeping and breathing radio for that long. And if you can eat, sleep and breathe radio, you will succeed.

JV: At your crisp age of 20, you probably have a different outlook on the future of radio than a production vet twice your age might have. What do you think of radio’s future?
Christopher: People ask me why I’m in radio, now that it’s all consolidated, and they say it’s going to get worse. Well, look back to the beginning days of radio. Old-time radio always made me go, “Wow.” I mean, we still can’t duplicate what Orson Welles did with War of the Worlds, and it wasn’t even pre-produced. It was live!

I think radio is going to return to the basics. One thing my grandfather always told me was that radio will always be here. It’s the only medium that won’t change. The delivery method may change, but the concept of somebody talking to you who you can’t see will never change. And there will always be a need for it because it’s the only medium out there that can entertain you, educate you, calm you, and keep you company without you having to do anything back. You can be driving, washing your car, reading a book, sleeping.

I actually have a great outlook on radio in the future. They’re talking about digital radio and stuff like that, but I think these big companies are going to see that people basically have digital radio already. You can just plug in a few CDs and listen to whatever cuts you want. There are CD players in cars, and there’s really no need for digital radio. What people tune in to, at least in my opinion, is the entertainment factor of radio. They want a little more than their music, and they want to not know what’s coming up next. As long as we as an industry keep surprising and keep creating great things for our listeners to hear, we’ll always be there. There will always be a need for radio.

Not only is this business going to improve, but I think it’s going to improve beyond anything we know. Look at the digital editing technology today. Five years ago no one knew what ProTools was. It was out, but nobody knew what it was capable of. If you talked to a number of people, they were talking about things like the ADX and the Roland. Look where we’ve come since radio signed on the air in 1920 at KDKA. And the acceleration has gotten faster and faster. I think radio will surpass television because television to me is overkill. There’s something about radio that I can’t explain, and it’s what I love about it. It’s just this feeling you have, and everyone wants to be a part of radio. Everybody wants to listen, and radio still is the only medium, I believe, that locally touches the audience and makes them feel like they’re at home. As long as we keep doing that, we’ll always be in demand.

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